State House in Augusta (Photo by Dan Kirchoff)
State House in Augusta (Photo by Dan Kirchoff)
The sun was coming up as bleary-eyed lawmakers finally emerged from the State House last Thursday after adjourning “sine die,” which means that they might come back later this summer to pass bonds, as Republicans are currently withholding their support for everything except a transportation bond package. The end of the session saw some victories for the Democratic base, but also some disappointments. Gov. Janet Mills and the Legislature finished out the session by honoring their promise to invest in renewable energy and pass new rules that will finally allow retail adult-use marijuana stores to operate. However, the Maine Senate also rejected a bill to aid asylum seekers, and labor activists are disappointed that Mills vetoed two public-sector collective bargaining bills.

A Big Investment in Solar Power

After years of dealing with a rabid opponent of renewable energy in the Blaine House, environmental groups and the solar industry are celebrating the passage of LD 1711, which makes a massive investment in solar power. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Dana Dow (R-Lincoln County), will expand the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard to 80 percent and set a goal of 100-percent renewables by 2050. Proponents of the new law say it will result in the development of solar energy installations capable of generating more than 400 megawatts and create more than 500 jobs. The bill also further promotes the investment in small- scale distributed energy generation, such as solar projects on homes and businesses, and lifts the nine-person cap on the number of participants in a community solar farm. Solar industry representatives issued a jubilant statement celebrating the bill’s passage.

“This is wonderful news and means that our solar installation business unit will reopen, after briefly shutting down after LePage’s gross-metering policy disrupted the marketplace and our project scheduling,” said Michael J. Mayhew, president of Heliotropic Technologies in Boothbay Harbor. “We’ve handed off a few solar projects earlier this year, but with this progressive legislation and some new talented employees on the horizon, we will get re-staffed at our midcoast, Boothbay Harbor location.”

The city of Belfast and the Waldoboro Energy Committee were also part of the coalition that helped push the bill over the finish line.

“We're really pleased here in the Town of Waldoboro to have played our part in supporting Senator Dana Dow in this bipartisan solar bill to put Maine on a job-creating, cost-competitive, and renewable energy path,” said Ron Philips of the Waldoboro Energy Committee in a statement.

Of course, not everyone was happy about the bill’s passage. Rep. Jeff Hanley (R-Pittston) grumbled that it will raise electric rates. “In 1960 when President Eisenhower left office he warned us about the creation of the military industrial complex. Well I’m here to warn you about the solar industrial complex,” he said in a floor speech last week. “And it’s where one group of people, an organization, comes and lobbies and promotes something and what they promote is a return on investment on the backs of the citizens of this state.”

Mills Signs Bill to Advance Monhegan Wind Project

Gov. Mills has signed a bill (LD 994) to compel the Maine Public Utilities Commission to approve an offshore wind demonstration project off of Monhegan Island. The members of the PUC, who were all appointed by Gov. Paul LePage, voted to reopen the terms of the project last year at the former governor’s urging.

“With the innovative work being done at University of Maine, our state has the potential to lead the world in floating offshore wind development,” said Mills in a statement. “This long-overdue bill will move us in that direction.”

Mills also announced that her administration has accepted an invitation to participate in the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s Gulf of Maine Intergovernmental Regional Task Force on offshore wind with New Hampshire and Massachusetts. In a press release, Mills said the task force will seek to identify opportunities for renewable energy leasing and development on the Outer Continental Shelf in the Gulf of Maine.

The Mills administration is also creating the Maine Offshore Wind Initiative, a group of state agencies that will identify opportunities for offshore wind development in the Gulf of Maine and examine ways that Maine can benefit from offshore wind as it pertains to job creation, supply chain and port development. It will also look at ways to minimize the effect of offshore wind on commercial fishing and other maritime industries.

“Offshore wind represents a great opportunity for Maine’s energy future and our economy. The development of offshore wind technology in Maine will create jobs, help us meet our energy needs with our own resources, and reduce carbon emissions in the process. The Maine Offshore Wind Initiative will lead this work,” said Mills. “Participating in the federal task force will also give Maine a seat at the table to ensure that development moves forward with the least impact to commercial fishing and other ocean-dependent industries.”

Asylum Seeker Debate Stirs Up White Nationalist Conspiracy Theories

The Maine Senate decided not to vote on a bill (LD 1317) that would have restored food assistance and health care coverage to non-citizens who are lawfully in the United States. The measure earlier passed the House on a vote of 88-51. The Legislature considered the bill as Portland is trying to find the resources to support over 200 asylum seekers from Central Africa fleeing violence and war. The group of refugees, including many children, recently arrived after traveling thousands of miles to Maine via South America.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed a law eliminating federal welfare benefits for most immigrants as part of his so-called “welfare reform” package. Back then, Maine passed a law to restore many of those benefits, but Gov. LePage repealed them in 2011. By federal law, these lawfully present non-citizens are prohibited from working for several months.

“It is imperative that Maine once again include non-citizens in its public assistance programs,” said Julia Brown, an attorney at the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project. “Non-citizens come to Maine and participate in the full range of Maine life, including paying taxes, and should be treated like other Mainers. Moreover, non-citizen adults often have U.S. citizen children who would benefit from their parents receiving services. Denying non-citizens and their citizen or non-citizen children these vital programs is to abandon them for no reason other than their immigration status.”

Brown also argued that new Mainers are important to the local economy as they will shore up the state’s declining workforce as more and more baby boomers retire. Maine’s native-born population only grew by 4 percent between 2000 and 2013, while the foreign-born population increased by 23 percent to 45,285 residents, according to a report by Coastal Enterprises Inc.

However, Republicans bitterly fought the bill, arguing that it was part of a plot to “replace” native Mainers with darker-skinned foreigners. In a Facebook video to the party faithful, Republican Party Vice Chair Nick Isgro warned viewers that Portland’s pro-immigrant policies threatened the entire state and that Republicans shouldn’t “let them pull on your heartstrings.” He described asylum seekers as “human pawns in a game that is being played by global elites.”

“We keep being told that we need more workers at the same time that we’re expanding and giving massive subsidies now to the abortion industry so we can kill our own people, but we have to import all these people so that we can continue to have a stream of cheap labor,” Isgro said.

Isgro was describing the white nationalist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory that “global elites” (a term often used as a code word for Jews) are trying to destroy America by replacing white Americans with darker-skinned migrants. In a subsequent video on Saturday, Isgro went even further off the rails by stating that “children are now, by government fiat, force-vaccinated to help make way for incoming waves of migrants,” implying that vaccinations are part of that same “globalist” plot to exterminate the white race.

In the Maine House last week, Republican lawmakers didn’t hold back from arguing against LD 1317 in racial terms. Rep. Larry Lockman (R-Bradley) said the bill was an attempt to create “proper racial balance” in the state. At one point the debate got so heated that Rep. Sheldon Hanington (R-Lincoln) was escorted off the floor for shouting at Speaker Sara Gideon and calling her a “weasel.” The angry exchange happened after Hanington complained that the Legislature was helping immigrants but not military veterans.

“As a veteran I am very appalled at how this state uses us,” said Hanington. “It’s bad enough that we have people on the waiting list. It’s bad enough that we have disabled, but we kind of wrap ourselves in the flag just enough to get a little PR in the press….”

At that point, Gideon pointed out that Hanington was “clearly impugning the character of other members” and asked the Lincoln representative to speak with her. According to the Associated Press, Hanington then strode up to the rostrum and shouted at her, forcing his Republican colleagues to intervene. After the House took a recess, Hanington reportedly apologized.

While Hanington and other Republicans used veterans as an excuse not to help asylum seekers, Hanington and his GOP colleagues voted against Medicaid expansion, which now covers roughly 3,000 veterans, and a bill (LD 1538) in 2017 that would have restored food assistance for veterans.

“Let’s face it, most of the veterans I know do not want to be treated special,” former Rep. Deb Sanderson (R-Chelsea), the ranking Republican on the Health and Human Services Committee said at the time. “They do not want to be treated as different … they want us to know that their sacrifice … was one that they freely gave and they don’t want a handout of welfare just because they served for us.”

Not one Republican voted for that bill.

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LD 1317 — Restoring Aid for Asylum Seekers
House (88 Yeas, 51 Nays)

Anne Beebe-Center (D-Rockland) Y
Scott Cuddy (D-Winterport) Y
Michael Devin (D-Newcastle) E
Jan Dodge (D-Belfast) Y
Vicki Doudera (D-Camden) Y
Jeff Evangelos (U-Friendship) Y
Jeffrey Hanley (R-Pittston) N
MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) N
Ann Matlack (D-St. George) Y
Chloe Maxmin (D-Nobleboro) Y
Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington) Y
Bill Pluecker (U-Warren) Y
Holly Stover (D-Boothbay) Y
Stanley Paige Zeigler (D-Montville) Y
U= unenrolled; X = absent; E = excused

House Carries Over Bill to Restore Tax on Multimillion Dollar Estates

The Maine Legislature last week rejected a bill (LD 420) that would have restored a tax on multimillion-dollar estates that the LePage administration repealed in 2011. Both houses subsequently voted to carry the bill over until next year. Currently, the estate tax only applies to inheritances worth more than $5.6 million, but LD 420 would have reduced the threshold for the estate tax to $2 million. Speaking in favor of the bill, Rep. Ryan Tipping (D-Orono) said that the estate tax is “one of the most progressive taxes at the state’s disposal and highly exportable” to out-of-state residents as many of these heirs don’t live in Maine.

Tipping read a statement provided by Michael Lambert, a former shipbuilder who married into the wealthy Rockefeller family. In the statement, his late father-in-law, Dr. Richard Rockefeller, said that he supported the estate tax because he didn’t want his children’s inheritance to be “purely a material thing.”

“The quality of the world they grow up in will contribute as much or more to their well-being as any amount of money and possessions that I could bequeath,” Rockefeller had said. “That is to say if the world I leave them is one of gated communities and growing inequality, downward mobility for the middle class, a degraded environment and a rotting social and physical infrastructure, then their inheritance will be a shabby one, no matter how much money they get.”

But the Maine Farm Bureau argued in testimony that estate taxes hurt farmers.

“While Maine farmers are generally not wealthy, many of us have accumulated significant assets in the form of farmland, farm buildings, farm trucks, tractors, and other farm machinery, as well as livestock and crops under production,” wrote Clark Granger of the Maine Farm Bureau. “These assets may easily achieve a value greater than $2 million. Good agricultural land has a value of $2,000 to $3,000 per acre, much more if accompanied by road or water frontage, or proximity to urban areas.”

However, Rep. Bill Pluecker (U-Warren), who is a farmer, pointed out that there are many available accounting tools farmers can use to avoid paying the estate tax.

R O L L   C A L L
LD 420 — Estate Tax
House (70 Yeas, 75 Nays)

Anne Beebe-Center (D-Rockland) Y
Scott Cuddy (D-Winterport) Y
Michael Devin (D-Newcastle) E
Jan Dodge (D-Belfast) Y
Vicki Doudera (D-Camden) Y
Jeff Evangelos (U-Friendship) Y
Jeffrey Hanley (R-Pittston) N
MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) N
Ann Matlack (D-St. George) Y
Chloe Maxmin (D-Nobleboro) Y
Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington) Y
Bill Pluecker (U-Warren) Y
Holly Stover (D-Boothbay) Y
Stanley Paige Zeigler (D-Montville) Y
Senate (12 Yeas, 19 Nays)
Dana Dow (R-Lincoln Cty) N
Erin Herbig (D-Belfast) N
Dave Miramant (D-Knox Cty) Y
U= unenrolled; X = absent; E = excused

Legislature OKs Earned Income Tax Credit Expansion

The Maine Legislature unanimously passed a bill to more than double the earned income tax credit and expand eligibility to 18- to 24-year-olds without children. In a press release, the Maine Center for Economic Policy (MECEP) said the measure also closes a tax loophole “that provides disproportionately large benefits to businesses with out-of-state income.

“This vote is a huge win for low-income Mainers, who work hard but are held back by income inequality and the rising cost of living. Expanding Maine’s Earned Income Tax Credit will put more money in their pockets so they can make ends meet,” said Sarah Austin, an MECEP policy analyst. “This bill will more than double the EITC, increasing the incomes of roughly 100,000 households. What’s more, it pays for itself by closing a tax loophole that gives multi-state businesses an unfair advantage over Maine-based companies.”

Legislature Passes Bill to Legalize Sports Betting

The Maine Senate voted 19-15 and the House unanimously gave approval to a bill (LD 553) that will set up the regulatory framework to legalize sports betting in Maine. The legislation came on the heels of a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that repealed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, opening the door for states to legalize sports betting.

“Many sports fans reached out to me about legalizing sports betting,” said Sen. Louie Luchini (D-Hancock County) in a statement. “By establishing a regulatory system for sports betting in Maine, we can both serve sports fans and raise revenue for the state.”

Legislature Passes Ban on Holding a Cellphone While Driving

The Maine House and Senate have passed a measure (LD 165) that will prohibit the use of handheld phones and devices while driving. The bill would require that electronic devices used while driving be hands-free instead.

“The issue of distracted driving has become an epidemic in recent years,” said Sen. Bill Diamond (D-Cumberland County), the bill’s sponsor, in a statement. “A driver only needs to take their eyes off the road for a second to cause a fatal accident. Passing this bill will save lives, and I thank my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for their strong support.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administrations estimates that about 3,000 people die and 400,000 are injured in car crashes every year due to distracted driving. Former Gov. Paul LePage vetoed similar measures, arguing that it would be better to raise public awareness about the problem than to make a law.

All of the members of the midcoast delegation voted for the bill except Rep. MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox).

Legislature Rejects Heating Fuel Tax

The Maine Legislature defeated a bill that would have imposed a 1-percent tax on heating fuel to be used to fund home-weatherization programs. Under the proposal, 80 percent of the revenue would have gone to the Efficiency Maine Trust for the Heating Fuel Efficiency and Weatherization Fund, and a quarter of it would have funded heating assistance for low-income Mainers. Testifying in support of the bill, Elise Brown of Evergreen Home Performance in Rockland argued that more funding is needed to make homes more energy efficient in order to reduce demand on fossil fuels.

“Last year, we received 40 percent more calls than 2017. The growing interest in tackling climate change is becoming a groundswell,” wrote Brown. “At current funding levels, Efficiency Maine will not be able to accommodate all interested Mainers.”

Brown estimated that her company helped Mainers qualify for approximately $250,000 in Efficiency Maine rebates, leveraging $2.5 million in efficiency projects and saving an estimated 2 million gallons of heating oil. But the propane industry opposed the bill, arguing that propane is “green energy” and has less of a carbon impact than electricity.

Bill to Monitor Aerial Application of Herbicides Passes

The Legislature approved a bill (LD 1691) that will require the state Board of Pesticides Control to work with representatives of the forest products industry over the next several months to monitor aerial applications of herbicides through a “neutral third-party entity” determined by the board and at the cost of the forest products industry. The measure requires the board to report back to the Legislature.

Speaking in favor of the bill, Rep. Bill Pluecker (U-Warren) argued that the herbicide glyphosate, found in the weedkiller Roundup, is known to cause cancer in lab animals. He pointed out that the chemical is only being applied in 20 percent of forest land in Maine.

“What we’re here to say is that when we go into the woods, we can use glyphosate in limited conditions, when we’re on the ground,” said Pluecker. “But if we’re applying from overhead where there’s a greater likelihood of drift we want to make sure that this potentially cancer causing chemical stays where it needs to be, to not float over to people who are working in the woods.”

A recent study published by researchers at the University of Washington found that glyphosate increases the risk of some cancers by more than 40 percent. However, Republicans were skeptical that the chemical is really that harmful. Rep. Bruce Bickford (R-Auburn) argued that it was hypocritical for Democrats to regulate glyphosate while voting to invest in solar because photovoltaic panels contain cadmium, a known carcinogen.

Amended Gun Control Bill Passes

After strong opposition from gun rights activists, the Legislature rejected a so-called “red flag law” that would have set up a legal process for relatives to petition a court to confiscate temporarily the firearms of a family member whom they believe to be a danger to themselves or others. Instead, the Legislature passed, and the governor eventually signed, an alternative compromise crafted with the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine that will allow police to take a person into protective custody if a medical professional confirms that that they pose a danger to themselves or others. The law will then require that individual to surrender their firearms to law enforcement.

Speaking in favor of the original bill (LD 1312), Rep. Barbara Cardone (D-Bangor) noted that Maine’s suicide rate is higher than the national average and suicide was the second leading cause of death for Mainers between 10 and 35 in 2014. She also pointed out that half of all homicides in Maine are the result of domestic violence and deaths are 12 times more likely when a firearm is used.

“This bill isn’t a permanent solution and it won’t avert all gun deaths,” she said, “but it is another tool for families and law enforcement who see someone in crisis but are powerless to prevent a tragedy. It strikes the right balance between protecting the due-process rights of responsible gun owners and protecting the safety of Maine citizens.”

But Rep. David Haggan (R-Hampden), a social studies teacher, argued that the bill would have been a violation of the Second Amendment. He also complained that he has 35 guns at home, but can’t bring them to school.

“I can defend myself fairly well out in the ’hood, but I cannot defend or protect any kids,” said Haggan in floor remarks last week.

R O L L   C A L L
LD 1312 — “Red Flag” Bill
House - motion to pass (61 Yeas, 82 Nays)

Anne Beebe-Center (D-Rockland) Y
Scott Cuddy (D-Winterport) Y
Michael Devin (D-Newcastle) E
Jan Dodge (D-Belfast) Y
Vicki Doudera (D-Camden) Y
Jeff Evangelos (U-Friendship) N
Jeffrey Hanley (R-Pittston) N
MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) N
Ann Matlack (D-St. George) Y
Chloe Maxmin (D-Nobleboro) N
Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington) N Bill Pluecker (U-Warren) N
Holly Stover (D-Boothbay) N
Stanley Paige Zeigler (D-Montville) N
Senate - motion to defeat (20 Yeas, 15 Nays)
Dana Dow (R-Lincoln Cty) Y
Erin Herbig (D-Belfast) Y
Dave Miramant (D-Knox Cty) N
U= unenrolled; X = absent; E = excused

Legislature Rejects Tax on Bottled Water

The Legislature last week voted down a measure (LD 1074) that would have put a 5-cent-per-gallon tax on the extraction of bottled water, and place it in the fund to repeair roads and bridges. The proposal wouldn’t have taken effect unless voters approved it by referendum. Rep. Lori Gramlich (D-Old Orchard Beach), the bill’s sponsor, wrote in testimony that water is a precious resource and Nestlé is not paying enough for the water it extracts for its Poland Spring products.

“Let me be clear, this bill would indeed levy a fee on extracting water from our earth water that we all depend on for life,” wrote Gramlich. “This is about Maine’s future. It is about whether Maine will be a prosperous state moving forward. It is about investing in our future and it is about paying our fair share.”

But attorney Jonathan Block of Poland Spring said the bill unfairly targeted Poland Spring and didn’t apply to other businesses extracting natural resources. Block added that the bill also amounts to double taxation.

“Poland Spring/Nestlé already pays income tax to the state of Maine at the already-high rate of 8.93 percent of its taxable income from the extraction, bottling and sale of water,” wrote Block.

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LD 1074 — Bottled Water Tax
House - motion to defeat (92 Yeas, 50 Nays)

Anne Beebe-Center (D-Rockland) N
Scott Cuddy (D-Winterport) N
Michael Devin (D-Newcastle) E
Jan Dodge (D-Belfast) N
Vicki Doudera (D-Camden) N
Jeff Evangelos (U-Friendship) N
Jeffrey Hanley (R-Pittston) Y
MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) Y
Ann Matlack (D-St. George) Y
Chloe Maxmin (D-Nobleboro) N
Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington) N
Bill Pluecker (U-Warren) N
Holly Stover (D-Boothbay) Y
Stanley Paige Zeigler (D-Montville) N
Senate - motion to pass (10 Yeas, 24 Nays)
Dana Dow (R-Lincoln Cty) N
Erin Herbig (D-Belfast) N
Dave Miramant (D-Knox Cty) Y
U= unenrolled; X = absent; E = excused